By Mary Mazzoni on Jun 22, 2012

Is a Smart Thermostat Right for You?

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Makers of the Nest Learning Thermostat claim the digital model can learn your schedule over time and automatically power down when you're away. Photo: Nest Labs

The dog days of summer are upon us, and along with all that fun in the sun comes another somewhat less plesant side effect; Inflated electricity bills. Air conditioners use about 5 percent of all the electricity produced in the United States, at a total cost of more than $11 billion to homeowners, according to the EPA.

EPA Energy Star estimates that individual homeowners can cut their cost by about $180 a year by properly setting their programmable thermostats. Meanwhile, companies producing flashy new smart thermostats claim that high-tech features help consumers realize even greater energy savings. But will a smart thermostat really cut your energy costs? And which type of model works best for your home?

Earth911 sat down with Abigail Daken, an environmental engineer with EPA Energy Star, to help you determine if a smart thermostat is a right fit for your lifestyle and budget.

What is a ‘smart thermostat’?

Programmable thermostats allow homeowners to pre-set temperature levels based on daily routines. In other words, you can manually pre-program the system to power down after you leave for work each day and kick on shortly before you return for a comfortable welcome – saving energy, time and money.

Newer “smart thermostats” provide the same features, but it’s the high-tech additions that set these models apart. Smart thermostat users have access to a variety of bells and whistles, including the ability to control their homes’ temperature from a smartphone or computer, monitoring systems that track energy usage in real-time and occupancy detection sensors that allow the system to “program itself,” manufacturers say.

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But are these features more about convenience, or will they really help you save? For that answer, we must not only look at the different types of smart thermostats but also how they relate a given homeowner’s needs, Daken says.

“It’s all a matter of what the issue is for a particular homeowner, what is preventing them from saving energy and money by scheduling their HVAC,” Daken says. “[A smart thermostat] is like any other product; it has to work with your life.”

Generally, smart thermostats can be broken down into three categories, each with its own set of features, benefits and pitfalls. No single unit will match perfectly with every home, budget and lifestyle. So, let’s take a look at each type of smart thermostat to find out which model (if any) is a fit for you.

NEXT: Types of smart thermostats

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